While further studies are required to understand the impact of COVID-19 beyond the symptoms of the virus itself, early statistics have indicated an increase in mental health issues, including that of our children. Contributing factors include constant disruption to education settings, reduced physical activity and social isolation. In addition, witnessing parents having to deal with financial stress or health issues and seeing constant news coverage of the pandemic can be unsettling or distressing to some children. This can have a significant impact on their mental health, more so if they are already at risk.
As a consequence, the Government has provided funding to the community and schools to raise awareness about the additional assistance available to help manage mental health and get children back on track. However, there is more that parents, schools and pre-schools can do to help children with their mental health. Something as simple as choosing the right extracurricular activities for our children. And in particular, activities that contribute positively to both their physical and mental wellbeing.
With the commencement of the 2021 school year, most parents are starting to consider extracurricular activities for our children. Similarly, Early Learning Centres, Kindergartens and Schools are starting to consider incursions to include as part of their curriculum (following a year where incursions were restricted in order to control the spread of COVID-19). In particular, schools in Victoria (whether or not they are eligible for the Active School Program Grant) will be starting to look at activities to include in their curriculum to help students following a tumultuous 2020 school year.
Not only has COVID-19 resulted in increased mental health issues, it has also contributed to a significant reduction in activities and movement, and to some extent, reduced the motivation in children to remain active. We need to look at activities that will address both the physical and mental health aspects rather than just one. It is also important to look at activities that will equip our children with tools and techniques that they can use anytime and anywhere, outside their extracurricular classes when they need it the most, to help them deal with the constant change and uncertainty characteristic of our current environment.
It is therefore timely to compare the difference between “mindful” and “non-mindful” activities.
Mindful vs Non-Mindful Exercise Research
The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has published a research document in Nov 2020 comparing the impact of mindful and non-mindful exercises on alleviating anxiety symptoms. This research is a systematic review and involves meta-analysis of past related studies conducted between 1991 to 2019.
The research found that mindful exercises (which includes low to moderate physical movement) with a simultaneous mental focus on breathing and meditation, such as yoga, in particular, are more beneficial in alleviating anxiety symptoms than non-mindful exercises (aerobics, physical exercises, dancing, swimming etc).
While the research is based on adults, the benefits of yoga are transferrable to children as well. Whilst both adults and children’s yoga are based on the philosophy of a practice that has been around for thousands of years, which includes poses, breathing exercises, relaxation and meditation, the differences lie in the delivery of the class. An adult’s class is quiet and mostly an individual practice. A children’s yoga class, in comparison, is fun, imaginative and interactive. Poses are done individually, with partners or in groups and most importantly, take into account a child’s age and stage of development.
The research found that yoga is more effective in reducing anxiety than non-mindful exercise as it includes regulation of breathing as well as relaxation practice. In particular this research found that:
- Participants who practiced yoga demonstrated lower anxiety level after intervention.
- Yoga results in a decrease in the sympathetic discharge (the body’s “fight or flight” response) and better oxygen saturation (the amount of oxygen in the blood) which can lead to improvement of mental fitness and health.
- Yoga results in a reduction of HPA activity (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal – the body’s central stress response system), which reduces sympathetic arousal and results in stability in the autonomic system.
- Yoga helps to improve self-control which may be predictive of changes in psychological health.
- Yoga helps reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This may be due to the emphasis on a non-judgemental attitude towards thoughts and experiences throughout the practice of yoga.
Other Benefits of Yoga
In addition to the benefits recognised by the research, yoga also has these benefit:
- Yoga can help instil a sense of calmness in children, helping them become resilient and develop a positive self-image.
- Yoga can enhance children’s flexibility, strength, balance and co-ordination.
- Yoga, unlike sport, is not competitive. Perfect for children who may not like the competitive nature of sports.
- Yoga is inclusive – it is suitable for everyone of all ages and ability (with some modifications). Yoga is also highly recommended for children with additional needs.
- Yoga can be done anywhere and anytime – off the mat and outside the class.
- Yoga provides children with tools and techniques to help them deal with issues caused by the daily demands and pressures from our modern lives.
- Yoga is cheap. Some investment may be required for classes, but apart from a yoga mat, which can be purchased at a low cost, there is no equipment required.
- Yoga is long term – it can be practiced through old age.
Mindful Exercises is Superior
As parents, teachers or principals, we have a unique opportunity to help our children during this pandemic and equip them with the right tools and techniques to help them self-manage their anxiety and emotions, now and in the future.
And while some non-mindful exercises may be good for our health, unprecedented times call for unique / non-ordinary, research backed approaches such as children’s yoga to help manage their physical and mental health.
By introducing and encouraging yoga in our children’s lives, we are helping them help themselves achieve a balance of strength and flexibility both physical and mentally.
Wendy Wing Yan So, Erin Yiqing Lu, Wai Ming Cheung and Hector Wing Hong Tsang, 23 November 2020, Comparing Mindful and Non-Mindful Exercises on Alleviating Anxiety Symptoms: A Systematic Review and Meta – Analysis, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.